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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Putting Buddhist Leaders on a Pedestal.

It isn't a secret that some in the west have an infatuation with Buddhism. It is still relatively new to the majority of Americans, having only really been absorbed by the white populations that make up most of the country since the 1950s. So, it still is in a bit of a honeymoon phase where for some in these white populations put the teachers on pedestals. For my non-American readers that means thinking that a certain person is perfect, so much so that you're willing to look past obvious faults because you're blinded by hero worship.

This is fueled I believe in large part by the false perception by some in the west that Buddhist teachers are all enlightened and that thus, they can do nothing wrong. This leads to schisms in some Buddhist communities between those who are deluded by the charm and title of a monk, and those who see that same teacher's obvious bad behavior. I won't go into the particulars but a prime example of this in the Zen Buddhist community is the case of Eido Shimano.

Since Buddhism in Asia has been around for millennia, it seems a healthy dose of skepticism and discernment has fermented. Take for example the case of the morally bankrupt monk, Osel Tendzin as brought to us by Katy Butler's great article titled, "Encountering the Shadow in Buddhist America," Pressure from the community is very important in controlling behavior in Tibetan communities," said Dr. Barbara Aziz, an internationally known social . . . who has spent 20 years doing fieldwork among Tibetans. . . . "In Tibetan society, they expect more of the guy they put on the pedes­tal . . . if such a scandal [as Osel Tendzin's] had happened in Tibet [he] might have been driven from the valley."

Furthermore, Tibetans may "demonstrate all kinds of reverence to a [teacher], but they won't necessarily do what he says. I see far more discernment among my Tibetan and Nepali friends," (said Dr. Aziz, in the Butler article), "than among Westerners."

These quotes were used in an excellent article by Russ Wellen found on The Buddhist Channel website. Ms. Butler goes onto add a quote by the Dalai Lama about Sangha teachers and monks that I think should be read by all western Buddhists, "I recommend never adopting the attitude toward one's Spiritual teacher of seeing his or her every action as divine or noble. . . . if one has a teacher who is not qualified, who is engaging in unsuitable or wrong behavior, then it is appropriate for the student to criticize that behavior."

I am reminded yet again here of the beautiful, yet simple and widely applicable Kalama Sutra that forms the foundation of my Buddhist practice. In particular, Buddha's charter on free inquiry. It is what grounds me when I find myself getting too caught up in the dogma and cult of personalities that sometimes form in Buddhist circles:

It is proper for you, Kalamas, [the people Buddha was addressing were the Kalamas] to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, 'The monk is our teacher.' Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,' abandon them.(emphasis added by James).

Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, 'The monk is our teacher.' Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,' enter on and abide in them.
The commentary from the Sinahlese monk, Soma Thero, that prefaces the charter adds additional reasoning as to why the Kalama Sutra is so fundamental for myself and many Buddhists today who come to the practice from a tradition of the scientific method. For it is difficult sometimes to access the validity of a belief system without a standard to judge it by. The charter in the Kalama Sutra provides just that to seekers:

"The Kalama Sutta, which sets forth the principles that should be followed by a seeker of truth, and which contains a standard things are judged by, belongs to a framework of the Dhamma; the four solaces taught in the sutta point out the extent to which the Buddha permits suspense of judgment in matters beyond normal cognition. The solaces show that the reason for a virtuous life does not necessarily depend on belief in rebirth or retribution, but on mental well-being acquired through the overcoming of greed, hate, and delusion."

UPDATE: Of course, this is not to say that we shouldn't expect our leaders to adhere to moral standards but that we shouldn't allow the misdeeds of some leaders to drive us away from the Buddhadharma. It is the Dharma that is enlightened--not necessarily teachers and monks. It is a reminder as well to maintain a healthy degree of skepticism when evaluating Dharma teachers before we submit to their advice and authority.

~Peace to all beings~

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PeterAtLarge said...

Interesting... especially in the context of the Catholic church's recent problems. There's a difference between expecting teachers and clergy to be perfect and expecting them to adhere to some reasonable moral standards!

They call him James Ure said...

@Peter. I agree that there is a difference, and I didn't mean to insinuate that they shouldn't have moral standards to adhere to. Just that if they don't we shouldn't toss out the entire Buddhadharma. I think I need to add that caveat to the post.

Katy de la Harpe Butler said...

Dear James,
The quotes from Dr. Aziz and others were cited by
Russ from an article by me, Katy Butler, called '"Encountering the Shadow in Buddhist America."

Thank you, Katy Butler

They call him James Ure said...

@Katy. Thanks for commenting and correcting me on the source. I appreciate it as I like to cite the right sources. I'll make the change to the post to reflect this. Sorry for the oversight.

buddhist matrimonial said...

@James, I totally agree with your post.

Chana said...

I just read Katy Butlers article that you mentioned yesterday. :) It seems to me that enough is enough when it comes to priests and teachers leading the unenlightened to the "way". America is overflowing with information on every aspect of Buddhist philosophy/psychology. It does not take a genius to figure out what it is about, and how to go about practicing it. The professional religious priest or teacher has a motive to their teaching. To keep the student dependent, it is there job you know. :) The case of Eido Shimano has gone on for 40 years. I have seen this same type of behavior at the local Zen center, and other so called places of enlightened teachers. Your mentioning of it, is good for all who practice Buddhism. It has become so ridiculous, making excuses for these priests and teachers that a video has even been made about it and is on youtube. If you wish to view it it is at ....

I think it is time for a revolution that throws out all the professional priests and teachers. We can practice without their guidance and we can form spiritual friendships that are equality based, not hierarchical.

Tullik said...

There is a major problem in American life which perpetuates these illusions. Just take a look a fundamental Christianity which without stretching the point is an American invention. Along with it goes the adherence, blind may I say, and the inevitable ball and chain. Its something in the American psyche the craves a "lead me by the nose" and "think for me!". On one hand we want less Government but the overriding desire(?) is show me what to do and think! Americans leave themselves open for excesses.....maybe its just in the genes.....too bad!

Russ Wellen said...

Thanks for the address to the Kalamas, TCH James. Had never seen it before. Words to live by.

Thanks, too, for link to my post. (I've got you on my Google Reader now.)

It occurs to me that a healthy dose of ego prevents some of us from placing teachers on a pedestal at the expense of our selves. (On the other hand, an unhealthy dose would probably prevent us from pursuing the path at all.)

Nice to see Katy Butler weighing in. She's an outstanding journalist.

Doug Scrivener said...

James- I love this blog! This is a portal opening to so much knowledge and information. The Kalama Sutta is amazing! Hit me like a bolt. All of this has helped me in my mediatation practice and I feel I am reaching a new level of awareness.

Thanks for the "...Pedestal" article.
Really a great perspective. Over that last 3 decades I have observed American followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogi (Yogi Bhajan-3HO)Abhay Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (Hare Krishna Movement)to name a few. Many of us have seen some of the irratic behaviors and relationship dynamics mentioned in the article in all of these "movements"

We as americans have come a long way in a short time in our understanding of how ancient "eastern" practices can integrate into our "western" lives in a sane and healthy manner.


Keep up the great work.

Steven H said...

Very true. It is all too easy for some of us to raise other humans to the level of deification, and then take those teachings to be dogma. Be influenced, be connected - but think critically using your own experience and reason.

Good post - I hope to read more in the future. I am surprised it has taken me so long to find your blog.

They call him James Ure said...

@Chana. I do think there is still a place for Buddhist institutions. However, I also believe that too many Americans and other Buddhists worship their teachers rather than seeing them as a guide giving advice. That's the true role of the teacher I feel--to give advice.

Because in the end, Buddhism teaches that no amount of "telling someone what to do" will get them out of the cycle of suffering. Only we can act upon what teachers advise of us.

I also believe that a secular Buddhism that does not revolve around professional Buddhists can be just as helpful as other schools. I personally prefer to stay within the Zen tradition.

However, I don't think a Buddhism based on collectives of average practitioners coming together to help one another is any less Buddhism than the older schools.

@Tullik. Agreed. I think American culture has been hurt by the Puritan "ideal" developed in early America. It was what set up the American "ideal" of following the leader and doing what everyone else is doing. It is what keeps people often from thinking for themselves.

@Russ. Indeed. The balance between skepticism and faith is delicate yet vital to have in place.

@Doug. Well, thank-you. I'm glad you enjoy the writing and conversations here. Yeah, the Kalama Sutra is an early form of the scientific method.

It's similar in my mind to a, "scientific control" which allows one to access a particular process without too much bias from other influences. In the sense of a Buddhist practice we're talking about such biases as our ego, an overly persuasive teacher or peer pressure.

They call him James Ure said...

@Steven. Well said. I like how your stated to stay open and ready to receive the teachings but to check them against your own reason and experience. It doesn't end suffering to simply be able to parrot someone else and recite all the sutras. That's simple obedience and memorization.

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